Have you ever been in a family travel pickle?

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel trafficIt was 10 p.m. and the only movement was a state police car creeping along the shoulder past a seemingly interminable line of cars and trucks. The bullhorn stuck out the window was supposed to be telling us what was going on, but the voice that emerged, loud though it was, was also unintelligible and I prayed silently that it wouldn’t wake up the boys who were both fast asleep in the back seat of our car.

Until we reached this crowded stretch of highway, our trip been as smooth as glass. As planned we’d picked the boys up right after school and hit the road. I had snacks, dinner, and plenty of activities all ready right in the car. Our goal was to reach Corolla, North Carolina – the northernmost part of the Outer Banks – by 9:30 p.m. To do so, we drove south through the entire state of Delaware, into Maryland, and finally onto this tiny and desolate spit of Virginia where the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel would carry us across 20 miles of water to Norfolk on the other side.

And then, just like that, with no warning whatsoever, the traffic came to a complete halt. We sat in the middle of numerous idling semis, trying to ignore the fumes and watched as ominous clouds rolled across the sky. After about twenty minutes, I pulled out Matt’s iPad and learned that the approaching storm and its high winds had caused a truck like the ones that surrounded us to tip over on the bridge. Until they could clear it, which they couldn’t do until the storm passed and the winds died down, no traffic would be allowed to pass.

Our predicament was obvious. We’d driven too far down the Delmarva Peninsula to think about turning back and trying to find an alternate route – the next closest bridge was the one in Annapolis, which at nearly 200 miles away was almost as far as we’d already driven. To backtrack and take that route would have meant driving all night. So if we’d managed to turn around our only option would have been to go home and call it quits on the entire weekend. And even doing that would have meant trying to cross a wide grassy median in fading light with all four of our bikes on the back of the car. We decided that we had to wait it out – maybe it wouldn’t be too long.

We started out, as one always does, cheerful and resolute. We told stories and read as the light faded. When the storm really hit, we had to roll up the windows to avoid getting soaked and the air in the car quickly turned soupy. Bickering started as we tried to decide what was worse – being stuffy and hot or being wet. An hour passed. Two hours. Finally the boys fell asleep, and, with nothing else to do Matt and I did as well, waking when the state police car arrived with its garbled explanation or when an especially strong gust of wind hit the car.

At 1:00 in the morning the state trooper returned for a slow parade with his bullhorn, clearly doing his best to make sure everyone woke up. It took another 25 minutes for traffic to start moving, and when it did, we realized just how close we were to the toll booths, probably about a mile from where we had been sitting. Once we got onto the bridge, the rest of the traffic seemed to disappear, perhaps into the seething water below us as we drove on the surreal bridge to nowhere. Descending into the illuminated glare of the tunnel halfway across did nothing to jar us back to reality and we rode like sleepwalkers until, just as we reached the opposite shore, we saw the truck that had caused all the trouble. It looked as if it had been cast aside by a petulant child and then stepped on, its trailer dented and torn.

I stayed awake with Matt for the remaining two hours of the drive, across yet another bridge at Kitty Hawk, up a narrow beach road into Duck and Corolla that was in places covered with water from Hurricane Irene and other recent storms. We arrived to find our welcome packet at our condo soaked almost beyond recognition (someone had left the lid to the box it was sitting in open to the elements) but I was just able to make our the code we needed to get into our house. It was only feet from the rental center, but in my exhaustion I mistakenly directed us back to the main road. Somehow we managed to figure out where to go, and once we got there, how to punch the code into the keypad by the door.

The boys, alert after their few hours of sleep, started to bounce off the walls of their room, which had two sets of bunk beds. Before things got too out of hand Matt actually said some choice things that may have involved the words “beat” and “cr-p” (who am I to judge? I put sunscreen on my toothbrush I was so tired) and inspired by fear they fell asleep immediately, as did we, the blissful dark sleep that only comes at the point of total exhaustion. The last thing I remember was glancing at the clock, which said 4:00.

Despite this, the weekend ended up being just fine – better than fine actually. Later that same morning after I dined on a Southern delight called The Big Meaty, we all played putt-putt golf, and the boys rode in go karts. In the brisk air of the Currituck Sound our long stay at the bridge seemed like only a bad dream. But that evening as we crawled into bed immediately after the boys did Matt pointed out to me that we had actually sat in our car at the bridge longer than we had driven. It was, in fact, the very definition of a road trip nightmare: The drive took more than twice as long as it should have. But you know what? Everyone survived. We had a great time. And now we have a story, one that can grow and become more elaborate over time. I’m sure that by the time Tommy and Teddy share it with their children, we’ll have been sitting on that highway for twelve hours and lightening will strike our car.

And I’ll never forget that silent drive across the bridge when the world seemed both vast and miniscule as I watched my husband in profile and caught glimpses of the roiling water underneath. We were allies in that moment, fellow travelers on an adventure.

To me this story shows that even when the unpleasant and unexpected happens, it’s still worth hitting the road. Although I could have done without the truck exhaust and stiff neck, I’m not sorry we embarked on this adventure. And now it’s your turn. Have your family travel plans ever gone awry enroute?

Photo courtesy of Fire at Will via Flickr.

Reader Responses

20 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. We have had a few – I try to block them from memory! :) One of the worst was one of our first trips with Katie when she was just shy of 2 years old. We had rented a cottage in PEI for a week and part way through the week the Air Canada pilots went on strike. There were no other direct flights from Charlottetown to Toronto and my husband spent hours on the phone trying to make new arrangements for us. The best the airline could do was get us on a flight from Halifax to Ottawa. We had to drive about 5 hours to get to Halifax and then our flight was delayed several times. When it eventually took off there was an announcement that the flight was now making a brief stop in Montreal. Katie had fallen asleep, however, all of the commotion of people disembarking from the plane in Montreal woke her up and she was none to happy about it. Eventually we reached our hotel in Ottawa around midnight. The next day we had another 5 or 6 hour drive to get home to Toronto so what should have been a 3 hour flight took two entire days of travel. It was pretty bad but it didn’t stop me from booking the next trip!

    • The thing that strikes me the most about this story is that your daughter was a toddler, when long trips are the roughest. I know I always went out of my way to make sure we had nonstop flights when my kids were that age! So impressed that this didn’t sour you on travel.

  2. Oh goodness! I think we have had more than our fair share. Wrong turn (stupid GPS) that led us to get stuck in the sand and need to call 911…Transmission troubles in the mountains in Colorado that necessitated pulling over every 10 miles to start and restart the car…one day of travel that was twice as long as needed because of construction that also included kids getting car sick, accidentally punching a hole in the side of the camper and a grassfire. Yep, we’ve had some real winners. They are some of our favorite stories, actually.

    • Goodness, that last trip sounds like a doozy. Was it one of the kids that punched a hole in the camper? How did that happen?

      • It wasn’t the kids, it was Dad. It’s hard to explain how it happened, but he knew better and was even aware it could happen and he hooked up the trailer anyway-and then, the hole. The good news is that there was no outloud cursing in front of the children. I considered that the victory of the day.:)

  3. I wrote a post all about the “lemons” in our travel lemonade. http://www.arrowssentforth.com/2011/06/lemons-in-our-lemonade.html It may have to be an annual tradition… I’ve got a few more to share since I wrote it. :) We’re heading out on our first trip with two kids next weekend and I’m hoping the chances of travel failures doesn’t double with two! But as you note, it adds to the memories and makes you a more determined traveler!

    • I remember when you published that post Nicole – lots of laughter and sympathetic nodding of my head here. Good luck on your first preschooler/baby foray!

  4. Our most unpleasant trip was also a car ride to North Carolina. Last spring we drove down to visit relatives, and learned that our younger son is prone to motion sickness. He was too young to really give us any warning, but he’d suddenly say “Mommy!” in an alarmed voice and then throw up and cry. And my 5-year-old would start crying because it smelled yucky. We’d stop, clean him up, clean the car seat up, give him a chance to walk around and get some fresh air and eat some saltines, and go on our way again. (A nice clerk at one of the gas stations we stopped at gave me the entire basket of individually wrapped saltines meant to go w/ soup or chili, because they didn’t have any boxes of them in the mini-mart). By the time we finally made it to our destination, several hours later than planned, he’d been sick 5 times, was out of clean clothes and was wearing a shirt belonging to his big brother. Thank goodness we were staying with relatives and could do some serious laundry on arrival.

  5. I’ve been in more than one. The worst was probably when I was travelling alone with my three kids in Scandinavia. We were to take an overnight train from Copenhagen to Stockholm. After the first hour we had to change trains. The hour flew by so quickly that we weren’t ready to get out when the train stopped. We quickly gathered our things and I had put my youngest daughter’s suitcase on the platform and prepared to get everyone off the train when suddenly, the doors closed and the train took off. The kids started screaming. I managed to stay calm because I had lost only a suitcase, not a kid. Thankfully, everything worked out fine because there are wonderful, helpful people all over the world and a God who answers prayers. We got off at the next stop and some train station workers helped us find another train back. Even though it was a different company, they didn’t charge us and made sure we got off at the right stop and even contacted the train station about my daughter’s suitcase. The suitcase was returned to us within a few minutes of getting back to the train station and we still had enough time to catch our next train.

    • I like stories that have a happy ending! This must have been harrowing for you though. Good point that when choosing what to step away from, it should be the luggage, not the children.

  6. We’ve had our fair share. Right now, our go-to horror/dinner party story about travel with kids is the story of our return from France. Our flight was canceled due to that crazy December blizzard a couple of years ago. We ended up being re-routed a day later (right before Christmas) on a flight that would take us not home to Philly (where our car waited for us) but to JFK, via Casablanca. Sam managed to catch a horrible cold/flu in the midst of it, ran a high fever, and almost wasn’t allowed on the flight (they were monitoring temps of passengers because of flu fears during the hajj), Ella had left her beloved teddy bear in our hotel in Paris, and we were shuttled through four different security points onto an old, rickety plane with no modern amenities (video, etc..) for a long flight from Casablanca to New York. When we arrived in New york and fought through customs with a sick toddler who kept laying down on the dirty dirty airport floor, we found out that our bags had been lost. Despite all of it (and I can still conjure about the anxiety and exhaustion), the trip was so worth it. France was amazing, both because of the sites and because we got to spend time with friends. And, even that horrible trip home had its moments. I can close my eyes and see Ella grinning as we shuttled around the Casablanca airport in a little bus, singing a song about Africa she had learned in Montessori, as well as all the lovely people who smiled, coo, and comforted Sam (in many different languages) as I walked him up and down the aisles of the plane, trying to calm him.

    • Sarah, I love, love, love that you point out the positive in this story, especially because I remember how difficult this was. Isn’t it amazing though how sometimes the lowest moments are also the best because they bring out others’ humanity? (One thing that was new to me here was the story of the teddy bear – did you ever get it back?)

  7. Yup, we’ve had a few less-than-peak adventures as well.
    One time, we were driving out to Maine and part of our trip took us along the New York Thruway. When we were ready to find somewhere to stay overnight to break up the trip, every place seemed to be completely full. We were to the point that I we were switching drivers every 15 miles as we were both so tired…so we stopped at a rest area to try to catch a nap (along with about a dozen other carloads of folks) at 3 a.m. About 15 minutes later, a vanload of kids rolled in, threw open the van’s doors, and cranked up the radio as they all piled out of the van for a dance party in the parking lot. That woke me up enough that I pulled out of there and drove the next couple of hours straight through. Thankfully, once we got to our B&B in Maine, the owner was able to give us an early check in :)

    • Like you, I’ve learned the hard way that it usually pays to have a reservation when traveling with kids. We had a similar experience driving from Delaware to Saint Louis – no fun.

  8. Besides trips to emergency rooms in a couple of different countries, we’ve had our share of travel mishaps. When our twins were two and a half, we took them to Turkey. We wandered happily around Istanbul with them in backpacks, loving the attention we got from Turks who said they were thrilled we brought our children, since most tourists didn’t. After flying through a storm from Istanbul to the Cappadocia region, we got into a van supplied by our hotel. It was night and the weather was raging with high winds and torrential rain, but our driver drove recklessly fast despite cautions from his passengers. I thought for sure we were going to die. Miraculously, we arrived safely and thoroughly enjoyed the area, visiting fairy chimneys and churches cut into rock and hiking the Goreme Valley.

    • The thought of traveling with twin toddlers boggles my mind a bit (especially doing so as a first-time parent), so I say more power to you! Scary situations like that where you don’t have control are the worst in my view, but you’re right, most often things work out just fine and it’s totally worth it.

  9. Oh yes! The first time we rented a travel trailer to see if we would like having one. Rental trailers are terrible to start with, no storage and very, very heavy. Couldn’t pick it up until 5pm Friday. We had the wrong type of hitch on our Ford Flex and we had only 2″ of clearance from the road, so when a terrible storm hit a few hours into the drive, we had to pull over and wait out the storm. The puddles covered the hitch. Saturday was fine, but then Sunday morning, bright and early we headed out to the bike trails and immediately blew a tire on the trailer. On a busy 2-lane highway with no shoulder. 10 minutes from a gas station. We had no emergency number for the rental company and no spare. We couldn’t find another tire within 1 hour of us. We couldn’t get the flat off. We didn’t get home (1.5 hours away) for 8 hours and we wound up having to ditch the trailer at a gas station. We spent about 12 hours enjoying our trip, the rest was pulled over on the side of the road or waiting in a gas station for help. None the less, we decided that we loved RV camping, immediately bought our own (with spare tire) and are taking a six week journey with our kids out west this summer! http://www.ontheroadwithlewisandclark.com if you want to follow our mishaps and adventures!

  10. I hate being stuck on the road! Or stuck; I will never fly again after it took me longer to fly home than it would have to drive home, and I am now a fan of hitting p[laces that are a bit closer to me. You should try Myrtle Beach – it is a great place to visit, and you can just shoot down 95, which is usually in good shape once you get past Washington and Richmond. There are a ton of Myrtle Beach attractions for kids, and plenty of stuff for the adults to – great southern food, great seafood, lots of nice parks and some really nice small museums and private nature spots!

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